The new psycho-sexual thriller Cam, recently released by Blumhouse Productions on Netflix and in select theaters, is billed as “a film by Isa Mazzei & Daniel Goldhaber.” In billing it such, the pair, who wrote and directed the film, respectively, sought to upend the standard notion of auteurism, which gives the lion’s share of authorship to the director. This wasn’t the only trope they set their sights on, as the main focus was on presenting an empathetic portrayal of sex work in the age of social media.
Cam follows Alice/Lola (Madeline Brewer), a successful camgirl whose live-streaming solo sex shows connect her to an online community of fans, admirers and obsessives. She takes her work as seriously as any professional artist or athlete, and her envelope-pushing shows — which expertly mix sex and violence while blurring the line between reality and fiction — have her climbing the ranks of her host site, FreeGirls.Live. That is, until she finds herself locked out of her account and replaced by a sinister doppleganger. As the contours of reality begin to warp all around her, Alice must figure out a way to reclaim her identity, no matter the cost.
In telling this story, Mazzei and Goldhaber called upon their first-hand experience in the world of camming and online pornography. The duo (who’ve known each other since high school) collaborated on Mazzei’s own shows during her time as a camgirl.
Prior to the film’s run at this year’s AFI Fest and its worldwide release, I sat down with the pair to discuss their unique history and professional working relationship, along with the film’s themes of identity, obsession and addiction, its intensive production and the charged reception from audiences.
You’ve both said that you originally wanted to make a non-fiction film about camming culture. How did that morph into a feature film? Specifically, a genre film?
IM: It was important to bring the audience inside a sex worker’s experience. For us, the best way to do that was through genre. We love that genre film can be used to smuggle subversive ideas to a large audience. The thriller twist came out of our own fears and anxieties around our digital identities and anxieties around camming.
What films did you look to for influence?
IM: The huge references for us were Black Swan and Whiplash. I read both of those scripts multiple times. They’re both these kinds of sports movies that follow protagonists who are completely driven in their fields, creatively fulfilled by their art. No one questions why Miles Teller or Natalie Portman[‘s characters] are obsessed with their craft. We wanted an audience to view Alice the same way with her sex work.
DG: That was a big thing in the writing process — people really wanted to know “why is this girl camming?” We live in a culture that does prize great artists who sacrifice themselves for their work. That’s where our film is coming from.
Alice already has separate identities at the beginning of the film, before this third — separate but identical — program comes along and disrupts her life. What did you want to say about our online selves vs. our off-line selves, and do you consider where Alice ends up a dark place, a place of triumph, or both?
IM: It’s somewhere in the middle. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s not a sad ending either. It’s a pyrrhic victory [for Alice], because she’s learned something. She is going back to her world with more knowledge.
We always knew that we wanted her to go back to sex work because that’s her passion, that’s where she lives. At the same time, if she’s going back online to this world where her digital identity is profitable, that’s her choice as well. We all make that choice. We all know Facebook is no good for us. There have been multiple studies about the negative impact of social media, yet we engage with it every day. There’s nothing wrong with that, we just need to be aware of the implications.
How important was it to you to keep the central mystery somewhat ambiguous?
DG: Personally, I don’t think it’s that ambiguous. When I talk to people after the movie and they ask “what was [the duplicate]?,” I ask them, “what do you think it is?” And nine times out of 10, they explain it as we see it. There’s only one thing in the world that behaves that way. I just don’t think that we felt the need to literally say “It’s an algorithm!”
You two have an interesting working and personal relationship that goes back quite a long way. How did that shape your collaboration during filming?
IM: There were definitely power struggles. I think we’re both very controlling, so we both had to learn to let up a little bit. It was about trusting the other person, trusting that we had the same vision. We’re not a couple, but we actually have a couple’s therapist that we work with just to negotiate things when they get a little tricky. At the end of the day, we made the exact film both of us wanted to make, so it was totally worth it.
DG: A lot of the time, we see filmmaking as a monologue from a single author. We listen to what they have to say, and that’s it. It’s really strange to me that we rarely question that, when we’re so willing to experiment with form, with theme. Everything else is up for grabs. Ultimately, this movie is not a monologue. This movie is a dialogue between the two of us.
Was this approach something that came about during filming, or was it a political statement you wanted to make from the outset?
IM: It came about as we were working. We were talking about a scene — which is actually no longer in the film. I was describing it to him, he was describing it to me, and we realized we both pictured the exact same thing. It was this moment where we realized, oh my gosh, it’s impossible to tease apart what’s mine and what’s his.
That dynamic reminds me of the writer-director relationship you find in television, especially these prestige series that have a head writer and a single director — ‘True Detective,’ ‘Sharp Objects,’ etc.
DG: It’s actually closer, in a lot of ways, to The Archers — the films of Powell and Pressburger. Even the division of labor — Pressburger was much more of the writer and producer, Powell was more the director.
Speaking of collaborators, how did you end up casting Madeline Brewer?
DG: We’re writing the script in my parents’ house, and my dad — he’s not a filmmaker, but he really likes to pretend he’s a filmmaker sometimes — walks in and says “I found your lead actress. I just saw her in a Black Mirror episode, her name is Madeline Brewer. She’s your lead.” And we’re like, sure she is. But then we looked up her work and sure enough she had the exact thing we were looking for. She has real technical acting ability, while also being very naturalistic on camera.
Luckily, somebody on our team knew her manager. Before she read the script, I sat down with Maddie and I pitched her — “This is what we’re trying to do with the movie. Before you even read the script, this is what you should go into it knowing.” And she read it with that in mind, and loved it, and reached back out to us. And then she met with Isa. I wasn’t even invited to that meeting, they had their own private chat. She came into audition at the end of that week and the audition was incredible. And then one of our producers called me, and was like, “If your movie sucks now, it’s entirely your fault, because she’s amazing.”
She’s playing a character that has to interact with online users spontaneously, in the moment. Did that require her to do a lot of improvisation?
IM: Yes. We actually built a fully functional site for FreeGirls.Live. I scripted about 100 pages of cam shows that our producer would trigger off-site. We really wanted to get the authenticity of camming. To do that, you need to have your cam girl responding live to these messages. So, a lot of Maddie’s laughing at jokes, or saying thank you, or responding to her cam guys is her responding live to chats I scripted. I actually built out each of the cam guys in her [chat]room. They have their own personalities, their own fonts, their own avatars, their own side stories that Maddie came to learn and interact with over the course of shooting.
Screenlife movies are pretty popular these days, thanks to the ‘Unfriended’ films, and the more recent ‘Searching’. Did you ever consider making this film in that style?
DG: No. From the beginning, we wanted to talk about the intersection between the digital and the real. There was a time we were thinking of shooting the “real” scenes on 16 mm. That was never going to happen, but we were always interested in the idea, not only thematically, but also formally. One of the things that was really exciting was finding a way to tell a story that was about 50 minutes of somebody screaming into their television monitor in their room, while keeping it exciting and coherent, and having it reflect the hyperstimulation of being online.
You’ve both spoken about your goal of getting the audience to empathize Alice, rather than judge her for her work and lifestyle. Now that online pornography is such a mainstay of everyday life, do you think audiences have more of an innate empathy for sex workers? Or is there a backlash? What kind of world is this movie coming out in?
IM: I don’t think this is a movie we could have made 10 years ago, or that would have gotten the same reception 10 years ago. But we’ve seen the film with the self-selecting audiences who are already on board with the politics. Now that it’s getting a larger release, it’s starting to be met with some backlash. There was a man that laughed at me in a Q & A a few days ago; there’s been some negative comments on articles posted about me, there’s been a lot of commentary about “saving” me. Men will come up to me after screenings and say, “are you sure you’re okay? Thank God you got out of that industry.” So, I think that while we have made progress, there’s still a lot to be made. I hope this film is a small part of that conversation.
Did you have any doubts about being open about your own history as a sex worker?
IM: I’m in a really privileged place where I can speak openly about being a sex worker and still have the support of my friends and family, and still have a career. I can’t destigmatize sex work if I’m still carrying shame about it. Putting my name on it is a signal that I’m really proud of what I did, I really loved my time as a cam girl. I’ll engage with anyone in a dialogue about it because I feel like it is so misunderstood.
My hope is that people can relate to Alice and look at her as a bad-ass, cool female character, and then also see a little bit of her when they do meet a cam girl or a sex worker of any type.
What’s your relationship with Blumhouse been like? You’re this little indie movie, getting released by the biggest name in genre film at the moment, only a few weeks after they’ve had their biggest hit to date — this year’s ‘Halloween.’
IM: Blumhouse didn’t finance the film, but they were creatively involved from the beginning. They really got the movie from the get go. They were one of the few production companies that was entirely supportive, not only of the collaboration and co-authorship we were so intent on, but also in protecting me, making sure that I felt safe, that I felt like my voice was heard. That’s ultimately one of the reasons we went with them.
When you look at films like Get Out, or these other huge hits that are commercial but also doing really important political work, it’s pretty cool to have to be working with a production company like that.
Cam is getting released on the widest possible platform — Netflix. How does it feel to know it will be available to so many viewers across the word, all at once?
IM: I love Netflix. They did a presentation where they showed us all the different countries where Cam will be streaming, and it blew my mind. It’s going to be a really surreal day to have it in front of that many eyes. It’s a film about the internet, about digital identity, so Netflix is the perfect place to roll it out. I know that it will find the people that will like it, and I know that other people who might not otherwise go see this movie in theaters, or who might not care to see it with their friends, are going to watch it. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy it or at least learn something from it.